Everything the Milwaukee Bucks have done this season stemmed from their ugly loss to the Miami Heat in the Orlando bubble. They reconfigured their roster around another star in Jrue Holiday. They experimented with switching screens defensively to give themselves more versatility against teams that shoot as well as the Heat. Head coach Mike Budenholzer is on the hot seat because of the Miami series. Aside from Holiday, the bulk of Milwaukee's supporting cast probably is too. The Bucks entered their series against the Heat last season as two-time defending regular-season record champions. They left understanding that postseason success required serious changes.
And sure enough, those changes have led the Bucks back to exactly the same place. Their first postseason games this season will come against the team they played their last postseason games against last season as the Heat travel to Milwaukee this weekend to kick off their rematch with Bucks. Like last season, Milwaukee enters as heavy favorites. They presumably have the best player in the series in Giannis Antetokounmpo. They have the better record, and this season, that comes with home-court advantage.
But none of that mattered last season as Miami stunned Milwaukee on its way to the NBA Finals. If the Bucks are going to get there themselves, they are going to have to prove that the changes they've spent the last year making can stick. They built their season around matchups like this one, and we're about to see whether or not that decision paid off. Here's everything you need to know as the Bucks and Heat face off.
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(3) Milwaukee Bucks vs. (6) Miami Heat
Bucks win series 4-0
- Game 1: Bucks 109, Heat 107 (OT)
- Game 2: Bucks 132, Heat 108
- Game 3: Bucks 113, Heat 84
- Game 4: Bucks 120, Heat 103
1. Be careful what you wish for
Bucks owner Marc Lasry went on CNBC on Tuesday and declared that his team wanted to play the Heat in the first round. It was a surprising statement to hear out of an owner, but not a surprising one given his team's actions. The Bucks played the Heat on Saturday and easily could have avoided them in the first round by benching their starters. That would have vaulted the Heat into the No. 5 seed and drawn Milwaukee the New York Knicks in the first round. Instead, the Bucks played everybody and dominated the Heat in a 14-point victory.
You can find ulterior motives if you look hard enough. The Bucks technically hadn't been eliminated from contention for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. They might've wanted to stay sharp for the playoffs. But in watching the game, the Bucks were clearly trying to send a message. They are not scared of the Heat. In fact, they seem to see the benefits of catching the Heat early. If they're going to have any hope against the true contenders they'll need to beat in the later rounds, they're going to have to exorcise those Miami demons now. The Bucks won't win in the playoffs unless they believe they can win in the playoffs, and, frankly, Antetokounmpo doesn't sound like he's brimming with confidence ahead of the postseason. This matchup is a chance for the Bucks to prove whatever they need to prove to themselves.
But it's also a welcome strategic diversion ahead of their highly-anticipated second-round series against Brooklyn. For all of the credit Milwaukee has gotten for switching more defensively, the strategy has been far from flawless. After back-to-back No. 1 rankings on defense, Milwaukee fell to ninth this season. The midseason addition of P.J. Tucker hasn't helped as much in this regard as the Bucks had hoped, and he's scarcely been in position to play this way anyway as the bulk of his minutes have come alongside a traditional center. Switching takes commitment and repetition. The Bucks haven't mastered it yet. They'll have to if they're going to beat a team that shoots as well as Brooklyn does, and the Heat, based on how they played last season anyway, offer a perfect opponent to practice this style against. If Milwaukee can hold up against Miami's shooters, they'll be one step closer to stopping Brooklyn's.
But, well, this is the Heat we're talking about here. They literally beat the Bucks last year. Even if this is what Milwaukee wanted, Miami now has the chance to beat them again this year. The Bucks took a risk by setting up this matchup. We'll know shortly whether or not that risk paid off.
2. Flipping the switch
The signs of a sleeper were there for Miami last season. They had an obvious strategic shift to make in moving Bam Adebayo to center. Their shooting lent itself to the playoffs, and the playing field was leveled without home-court advantage or travel. Miami's militaristic culture set the Heat up for a playoff run last season in the unusual confines of the bubble.
But this postseason isn't in a bubble, and little about this season in a vacuum suggests the Heat are ready to flip the switch again. The Heat have a negative point-differential. Their offense is ranked 18th. Jae Crowder made 22 3's in five games against the Bucks last postseason. Now he plays for the Suns. Goran Dragic is older. Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson have regressed as shooters. Adebayo has been playing center all season.
There has just been a widespread assumption that the Heat would eventually turn into the championship contenders they were eight months ago, but the playoffs are here and they haven't looked at all like that team this season. They're running out of time to transform into it, and unlike last season, the Bucks aren't going to beat themselves with the same old strategic mistakes. Picking the Heat means picking history. Picking the Bucks means picking reality. The former matters more you'd think in the postseason, but not without a hefty dose of the latter. The Heat can't rest on their laurels and assume that last season will repeat itself. If they don't recapture that magic and adjust to a newer and better Bucks team this time around, they're not making it past Milwaukee for a second time.
3. Can the Bucks score when it counts?
For all Milwaukee has changed this season, the Bucks continue to struggle when it comes to late-game offense. They rank 18th in clutch offense by scoring 107 points per 100 possessions, and while their overall fourth-quarter offense is ranked ninth, they still have a ways to go before they can hope to match buckets with more traditional elite offenses.
The Heat haven't been in an elite offense this year, but Jimmy Butler's track record in the clutch is so strong that he is going to put pressure on the Bucks in every close game. He practically won the Heat Game 1 of last year's series on his own. The Bucks don't have a similar late-game closer. Holiday, Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton have split late-game shots fairly evenly.
Having a trio like that has opened up the playbook a bit for Milwaukee, at least. The Bucks have found success using Antetokounmpo as a screener more often at the end of games because it essentially prevents opposing teams from switching most matchups. Let a guard end up on Giannis and he's going to dunk. Holiday can create his own shot as well, and that might draw Middleton some easier one-on-one matchups after he was essentially left to fend for himself in the clutch last season.
This isn't the regular season. The Bucks aren't going to win games so handily that their fourth-quarter misadventures can be ignored. Winning a championship means winning close games. The Bucks are slightly better equipped to do so on paper this season, but it hasn't translated into tangible results. It will have to quickly if they are going to make a real run this postseason.